Acts 13: 14, 43-52; Rev 7: 9, 14b-17; John 10: 27-30
There’s no denying that the early community in Acts goes through some serious growing pains in their time. I think it’s a good reason that we hear from Acts every Easter because it can assure us we’re no different but also remind us that change is real and the challenge that accompanies it is hard. Paul finds himself in that place today. I do think it’s also good to keep in mind that until the day of his own martyrdom, Paul considered himself part of the Jewish faith. Of course it eventually all splinters and Jews and Christians go their separate ways, but for Paul and the early disciples, that wasn’t the reality.
We hear that tension in the community today. How do we grow and how do we move forward is not only the question of Acts but it’s a question we must always ask ourselves today. There are always obstacles to those questions as there was for Paul. He saw no reason why this message should not be spread to the Gentiles. Again, keep some of our biblical knowledge at the forefront of our minds, there’s no denying that there was also a mutual mistrust and dislike between the Jews and Gentiles. Quite honestly, that still exists to this day. Paul, though, now finds himself part of this religion, as we would eventually call it, with people that considered themselves the chosen people, in some ways in a privileged place before God. That’s a tough place to be and even tougher for Paul to break through if there’s going to be change, considering he, himself, would be considered an outsider. He comes later to the faith.
With all that said, the stage is set for today’s first reading. There is this continued tension between insiders and outsiders and who, for whatever it’s worth, is worthy of this message that Paul speaks. The insiders feel it’s exclusively for them and everyone else is shut out. However, Paul feels otherwise. Now he eventually isn’t going to stand for it. He simply wipes the dust from his feet and goes on his way. But he faces the jealousy of the people and threaten his life in the process. They have no regards for him. He’s not one of them if he thinks that way. But if you know anything about Paul, it’s taken him time to get to this place when he has his own conversion experience. He encounters Christ crucified on the way to Damascus. He’s blinded and then begins to see life in a new way. He no longer looks at life from this place of privilege or better than, he now begins to look at life from the place of suffering and his own encounter with the cross.
Although we really don’t hear it in today’s gospel, Jesus is under much scrutiny himself at this point. The very next lines in the gospel the people are picking up stones to throw at him. He too, of course, is an insider to some extent but not from the place of privilege. He comes from Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, son of a carpenter, and not from Jerusalem. He already has that going against him, along with the fact that he was just with the Samaritan woman and eats and gathers with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. Everything about this guy makes him an outsider. And now here he is in John’s gospel referring to them as sheep. The people who consider themselves in the place of privilege before God are now referred to in a way that links them to the the Gentiles, the Samaritans, and all other outsiders isn’t really going to go over all that well.
So here they are, the outsiders, trying to turn things on their heads and change the vision of the people of themselves and God. Both of them had this uncanny ability to be self-critical. Paul, certainly of himself, but also about the followers and the early communities. He had a way of turning it back on them which only infuriated them all the more and will lead to these splits. It’s hard to change those who consider themselves insiders and in a place of privilege because they don’t think they’re the ones that need to change. It’s so often not about an encounter with Christ but their own agenda. That’s a hard place to be. But Paul models it so well for us in our own lives. It comes down to fear and it comes down to our judgments. We all know that it typically doesn’t hurt the other. Our fear and judgment hurts us much more because it holds us back and makes us stuck. It becomes our sin. No one knows that better than Paul. He murdered. He persecuted. But in his moment of conversion, he begins to realize it’s not about the others that have been excluded, it’s about himself and what he had hated about himself that needed to change. That’s where Christ crucified meets him. That becomes one of his greatest gifts. The one who was on the outside becomes an insider with a critical eye but never forgets what it’s like as an outsider. It’s why Pope Francis often says about going out to the fringes. That’s where we’re changed, otherwise we turn in on ourselves and get stuck.
Change is the reality of our lives even if we don’t like it while it’s happening. It’s especially hard on those who come as insiders and consider themselves in a place of privilege. Quite honestly, all of us here are prey to that kind of thinking. We are the people Paul is critical of in those early communities. However, if we only look through that one lens we don’t grow. Paul, and certainly the Good Shepherd who too was Lamb, invites us to change the way we view our lives and the world, not from the place of privilege, but from the Cross. Today we pray for that awareness in our own lives, to have that self-critical eye of our own blind side and were we exclude in our own lives, either in community or individually. It will reveal our own fear and judgment. But like Paul, it’s where Christ crucified meets us to open our blinded eyes to a new way of seeing, from the place of the Cross. They are the ones that have survived the time of great distress that we hear of in Revelation today, who persevere in the face of adversity, surrendering their place of status and privilege, to become a new creation in Christ.